Communicating Without Offense

Some people just know how to put things—they can deliver brutal criticism, but in such a way it feels like they’re only telling you to be nice. Others can offer even minor critiques in such a brusque, insensitive way that you feel like you’ve been put through the wringer, or that you’re being shown disrespect.

A Business Day Q&A in The New York Times in which Edward Dolman, chairman and chief executive of international auction house Phillips, is interviewed, made me consider the art of communication. Dolman, interviewed by Nazanin Lankarani, says communication is at the cornerstone of his approach to leadership: “My style is communicative. I spend a lot of time telling our teams what we want to achieve and what success looks like. I paint a broad picture and lay down the standards of behavior we expect and those we don’t.”

Directives from managers and executives that phrase “communication” as “do this” and “don’t do this” shouldn’t count as communication. It’s that one-way directive style of communicating that turns off people like me, who resent being dictated to, and resist a heavy hand “guiding” them. I’m guessing many other Generation Xers and Millennials feel the same way. I’ve noticed that Baby Boomers often have a greater tolerance for dictatorial forms of communication, maybe because that’s how their elders communicated with them as they were growing up.

We younger generations have gotten spoiled because, ironically, we had Baby Boomers as parents. They were used to being spoken to in a dictatorial manner, but often didn’t want to repeat that form of communication with their children. What’s funny to me is that even though members of that generation often didn’t want to continue that old-fashioned communication style at home, it persisted in the workplace. Many of my company’s older employees still speak in a one-way communication style to employees. Those of the younger generations are also sometimes dictatorial, but less frequently.

Is there a way to teach younger employees how to gracefully explain that the way their managers are communicating with them rubs them the wrong way? I haven’t figured out a way to do that myself yet. Many younger employees, used to parents who favored conversations over commands, probably are shocked at how their bosses communicate with them—so brusque and authoritative—and since they can’t figure out a way to say, “I don’t like being spoken to that way,” they simply look for a new job as soon as they can.

Generation change in the workforce means communication has to change, too. In leadership development seminars, a module on communicating with Generation X and Y would be helpful.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Pose suggestions and communication as questions, or points for discussion, rather than orders. For example, rather than saying: “Add more photos to that newsletter—readers are checking out. Include a harder marketing sell, change the focus to align with our corporate messaging,” the manager would say: “I looked over the newsletter, and it seemed like it could use additional photos—what do you think? Other things I noticed: the possible need for a harder marketing sell, and a change in focus that aligns better with our corporate messaging.”
  • If the task is simple, just do it yourself. My manager loves to give directions and opine—it’s his favorite thing (he actually longs to serve on juries, he’s told me). He would rather write out directions to add a sentence to a document than just add the sentence himself. I think he would even write directions to add a period or comma. Some people just have an innate love of giving other people directions and orders. I hate it myself. When the task is simple, it’s better to just take care of it yourself. You can always let the employee know what you did so he or she will be alert to the need to do it next time.
  • Always answer employee questions and complaints. There’s a persistent arrogant, old-fashioned notion that the manager shouldn’t deign to answer some employee questions or complaints. That attitude ties into the dictatorial style of leadership and communication in which the manager doesn’t owe the employee anything except directions and orders. If an answer—especially one the employee will find acceptable—isn’t possible, just be honest. Answer the employee’s e-mail and say: “Tom, I see what you’re saying. I don’t have an answer for you right now on that, but I’ll give it some thought. Maybe we can meet sometime over the next few weeks to come up with some new ideas on doing this differently.” I know from personal experience how frustrating it is to be ignored. An honest e-mail, or phone call, in which the boss admits she doesn’t have an answer, will win you points with that employee.
  • Ask them for help. Showing humility goes a long way with employees, especially those of younger generations. With social media and technology playing such an important role in product development and marketing, it’s not a stretch to say that those approaching their golden years could use some input from a person 20 or 30 years—or even 40 years—younger. It’s the job of the boss to develop the overarching vision, but for the course of action that will take the department to that vision’s destination, it’s OK to admit you don’t have all the answers. Employees will appreciate the honesty of a boss who asks them for advice on a social media campaign or app that will resonate the best with customers.
  • Hold monthly Q&A sessions with employees. What if managers of departments held monthly “press conferences” with employees, in which those employees—like journalists at a press conference—could raise their hands and ask the boss anything they like, with all their fellow employees watching and listening? These town hall-style meetings are one way of showing the boss isn’t above accountability for her actions, and that she welcomes a two-way conversation.

What do you teach managers about communicating with employees, so they get the desired message without feeling alienated or resentful? Does a generational shift in the workplace also necessitate a shift in communication style?


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